‘Snickets’ by Nic Wilson

Lovely to have one of my nature pieces included on the Landlines: British Nature Writing, 1798-2014 site this week. I’m celebrating the daily renewal offered by the nearby wild…

Land Lines: British Nature Writing, 1789-2014

Snicket Steps, Gyffin. Image credit Rob Carter
Snicket steps, Gyffin, image credit Rob Carter
We are delighted to announce the start of a special series of blog posts throughout July, August and September featuring new work from emerging nature writers. First up is Nic Wilson’s beautiful meditation on memory and the daily renewal of our contact with the land.

‘All locales and landscapes are … embedded in social and individual times of memory. Their pasts as much as their spaces are crucially constitutive of their presents.’
Christopher Tilley A Phenomenology of Landscape

Snicket, n. – a narrow passage between houses, an alleyway, origin obscure.
Oxford English Dictionary

There are many different types of snicket and each has its own story to tell. I surface in these riven-pathways early; they tower above my head. The stones at eye-level jut out of the mortar and despite their unforgiving corners I’m compelled to run my fingers along the broken edges, remembering…

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Coral, Peach and Ivory Tones in Jo Thompson’s Wedgwood Garden

The Wedgwood Garden, designed by Jo Thompson, marks the 260th anniversary of the company, founded by Josiah Wedgwood in 1759. The hard landscaping is inspired by Etruria – the pioneering Staffordshire village that Wedgwood built for his workers – and the canals that transported his pottery throughout the UK. 

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One of the vistas through the garden

Many of Wedgwood’s motifs were based on Greek and Roman mythology and this influence is captured in the interlinked arches that provide multiple frames through which to view the garden. The importance of the Staffordshire canals are referenced in the watercourse that flows through the garden, connecting the architecture with the surrounding planting. The garden includes sculptures by Ben Barrell – ‘Erosion’ is a rippled stone surface inspired by centuries of erosion and ‘Poldhu Point’ is a bronze sculpture inspired by a headland on the Cornish coast.

The overarching conifers (Pinus nigra, Sequoia sempervirens and Cedrus atlantica) and soft colour palette of the shrubs, perennials and annuals creates a warm, secluded atmosphere, perfect for relaxation. I’m helping on the garden this week – answering questions about the design and planting, but what I most want to do is settle down amongst the umbellifers and peonies to drink in the sights and scents.

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Water is the key element in this garden – seen here in Ben Barrell’s sculpture

Jo’s planting takes my breath away with its subtle, natural combinations of form, texture and colour. I am particularly drawn to certain plants – as are many of the visitors to the garden – these are all cultivars that would be easy to grow at home in both formal and informal gardens:

Iris ‘Pink Charm’

A gorgeous bearded iris with a name that belies its delicate peachy falls and intense tangerine beard. This iris creates drama and height among the lower perennials on the margins of the garden. The fragrant flowers will reach 60cm and bloom throughout May and June. Iris need full sun and well-drained soil in a sheltered position. If you can give them the conditions they require (sadly not easy in my garden), they will repay you with bursts of peachy joy in your early summer borders. Without a doubt, my favourite plant in the Wedgwood Garden.

Iris ‘Pink Charm’

Eschscholzia ‘Ivory Castle’

Another flower attracting a lot of attention from the crowds is Eschscholzia (bless you) ‘Ivory Castle’, the Californian poppy. This delightful annual has glaucous feathery foliage and ivory flowers with a creamy eye. It’s not too late to sow seeds and as ‘Ivory Castle’ only grows to 40cm, it is ideal for softening the edges of beds and borders.

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Eschscholzia ‘Ivory Castle’

Paeonia ‘Pink Hawaiian Coral’

This herbaceous peony has semi-double flowers that last well in a vase. Peonies prefer well-drained soil in full sun, and prefer a sheltered position. It will reach 90cm and produces scented blooms throughout May and June. The glowing coral-pink flowers fade as they age, revealing a centre filled with soft yellow stamens. It’s a real beauty.

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Paeonia ‘Pink Hawaiian Coral’

Daucus carota ‘Dara’

Jo’s planting is light and airy using umbellifers like Ammi majusAngelica archangelicaAnthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’ – another of my favourites – and Daucus carota ‘Dara’. I grow this cultivated variety of wild carrot for its light burgundy umbels and ferny foliage. At 90cm, the flowerheads create drama above the surrounding planting, but don’t obscure the views beyond. As with many umbellifers, Daucus carota attracts pollinating insects and later in the season provides seeds for birds. Another bonus is the concave seedhead which is almost more beautiful than the flowers themselves.

Daucus Carota flowers and seedhead

DSC_0063 (2)Verbascum ‘Helen Johnson’

I love verbascum in all its shades and sizes – from native Verbascum nigrum (dark mullein) and Verbascum thapsus (great mullein) to cultivars like ‘Clementine’ and ‘Gainsborough’. ‘Helen Johnson’ was found as a chance seedling at Kew and its pinky-coppery shades bring together the dusky tones in Jo’s planting. Verbascum flowers attract a wide range of pollinating insects – bees, butterflies and flies. Rather wonderfully, hairs are also combed from stems and leaves by wool carder bees to use as nest material, and males guard areas of the plant for potential mates. 

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Planting Palettes: Reflections on RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2016

Cutting Patch: Into The Limelight

 

Prince and Pedlar: Forgotten Fruit

Ripening in the garden this afternoon are the last of the ‘White Marseille’ figs (Ficus carica); the first, and therefore somewhat miraculous, harvest for 14 years. On either side of the fig are the fruiting canes of the pink, seedless ‘Reliance’ grape (Vitis vinifera) and in the front garden, a handful of Chilean guava (Ugni molinae) berries that survived the drought earlier in the year are developing their burgundy shine. The honeyberries (Lonicera caerulea) and pinkberries (actually a pink blueberry, Vaccinium ‘Pink Lemonade’) also fruited for the first time this year and there were a even couple of mulberries  on the juvenile ‘Charlotte Russe’ (developed from Morus rotundiloba), although I have to say I’m still unconvinced about their quality in terms of flavour.

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When I saw these figs I could hardly believe they were real

We had a fair apple harvest from our espalier ‘James Grieve’ and ‘Egremont Russet’, although ‘Bountiful’ and ‘Fiesta’ sulked all spring and produced not one blossom. The plum (Prunus domestica ‘Opal’) had a successful year and the greengage (Prunus domestica subsp. italica ‘Cambridge Gage’) also produced a good harvest, although due to poor timing on our part we were away when the fruit ripened and on our return all that remained were a series of wasps’ bottoms poking provocatively out of each syrupy gage.

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After 13 quinces last year, this haul was an utter delight

Quantity of Quince

But the delight of the year has been the success of our appealingly dishevelled quince tree (Cydonia oblonga), the aptly named ‘Meeches Prolific’. A couple of weeks ago, at five years old, it delighted us all with a harvest of around 100-150 small fruits, picked by my husband and daughter, each quince carefully handed down from the tree and placed reverently in a bucket which it soon became clear was far too small for the seemingly limitless supply hidden beneath the foliage. The quince harvest alone made my year in the garden complete. My only regret, fruit-wise, is the lack of space for that king of trees – the medlar.

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The medlars in the community garden are cropping well this autumn

Meeting Medlars

I first discovered medlars when I moved down to Hertfordshire in 2003. Until that moment my fruit aspirations went no further than childhood memories of my dad’s ‘Laxton’s Superb’ apple trees, bilberries foraged on the Welsh mountains and the loganberry – a fruit that attained an almost mythic status in my memory as the sweetest food on earth when eaten warm from Aunty Florence’s garden, the berries almost as big as my mouth. But I’d never encountered anything like the medlar. Here was a fruit that offered neither immediate candied delight, nor vibrant hues; a fruit whose dun, leathery skin seemed a deliberate indication of its disinclination to be eaten. I was intrigued.

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A most unassuming fruit

The tree stood in the corner of my friends’ new garden – a modest, rather overgrown patch with unexpected treasures lurking at the back of each brimming border. Their area has a rich horticultural history: situated on the borders of a medieval park dating from before 1380, then developed into a town pleasure garden in the 18th century. With the cottages and gardens themselves dating back to 1820s and 30s, theirs was a historically interesting garden with dynamic borders full of flowers and fruit – redcurrants, damsons, gooseberries, blackberries, quince, raspberries, rosemary, campanula, hollyhocks and clematis.

The garden in winter and with spring blossom (Image credit: Lindsay Cook)

I was attracted to the story behind this garden and the questions behind the design – who had planted with this balanced purpose of beauty and productivity – and what had the garden meant to them? Why had they chosen the majestic medlar as the cornerstone of the garden and what did they do with the fruits? The garden and its medlar tree ignited my interest in unconventional fruits and the stories that they can tell. We harvested the medlars in the garden for several years, bletting the fruits, watching the disintegration of the skins as the not-quite rotting took place and savouring the smoky date-apple flavours of the jellies and cheeses that we produced using methods that have been around for hundreds of years.

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Beautiful, yet the undignified butt of many an ancient joke

Ancient Fruit

Both quinces and medlars were once popular fruit in the UK. In 1629 John Parkinson, Royal Botanist to Charles I, lists three varieties of medlars and six of quince in his study of plant cultivation, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris. Gervase Markham (1568-1637) has advice for both ‘husbandmen’ and ‘housewives’ regarding storing and cooking these fruit. Husbandmen should ‘gather [medlars] about the midst of October after such time as the frost hath nipt and bitten them’ and lay them in ‘thicke woollen cloathe, and about the cloathes good store of hay, & someother waight of boards’ to heat them and bring them to a ‘perfect rottenesse.’ Quinces, on the other hand, should be stored away from other fruit ‘because their sent is so strong and piercing, that it will enter into any fruit, and cleane take away his naturall rellish’.

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One of the joys of growing quinces is their pale, cupped blossom in mid spring

In The Well-Kept Kitchen, as well as advising housewives in matter of religion, temperance, dress sense and their knowledge of gardening, Markham also includes instruction in the art of  making quince conserve, preserve, cake, paste and marmalade. 200 years later Eliza Acton continues the tradition with her recipes for quince juice, custard, jellies and marmalade, whilst Isabella Beeton’s 1860s recipes for medlar jelly and mebrillo (quince cheese) are the ones we use in our kitchen today.

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Quince cheese – a special autumn treat

Soup Tales

Many years ago at university I bought Soup & Beyond by the New Covent Garden Soup Company – an exploratory cookery book for which we were required to ditch our student staples of chicken, pasta and cheese, and explore hitherto unknown ingredients like dill, lovage, buckwheat and buttermilk. One of the recipes for prince and pedlar soup looked intriguing, but I was at a loss to source the strange fruits so as I worked my way through the other recipes the prince and the pedlar remained uncooked, forgotten for the last twenty years. Yesterday, with huge piles of quince fragrantly ripening in boxes in the kitchen I remembered the old recipe and unearthed the soup book. 

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The downy coating on an unripe quince disappears as it ripens

Although we have a few foraged medlars they haven’t yet completely bletted, so this time I’ve substituted one of our Egremont Russet apples as suggested in the recipe:

Ingredients

50g (2oz) butter

575g (11b 5oz) quince (approx 3), peeled, cored and roughly chopped

1 russet apple, peeled, cored and roughly chopped (or bletted medlar – I’d use 3/4 and just add the flesh to the soup mix)

1 teaspoon tumeric

1.25 litres chicken stock

3 tablespoons single cream

2 egg yolks

salt and freshly ground pepper

Method

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the quince, medlar and tumeric. Cook over a low heat for 10 minutes. Add the stock, bring to the boil and then turn down the heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Take off the heat and leave to cool.

Process in a liquidiser until smooth, then return to the pan. Beat the cream and egg yolks together, add a ladle full of soup to this mixture then pour into the soup. Cook gently over a low heat until the mixture thickens, stirring continuously. Season to taste.

From New Covent Garden Soup Company’s Soup & Beyond (1999)

The Taste of History

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Prince and Pedlar Soup finally in the flesh

Supper is now served: a warm yellow soup with a silky texture and a mellow sweet and sour flavour that reminds me of parsnip and orange. I’ve made cheese bread, so we’re all sorted for the evening. Whether your taste is for soups, jellies, poached fruit, marmalade or membrillo, quinces and medlars have so much potential and they deserve to be remembered.

 

What are your favourite autumn fruit recipes? Do you have any special quince and medlar concoctions? If so, please leave me a comment so that I can try them too. Thank you.

 

Sowing the Seeds of Tomorrow

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The offending articles

When my godson was three his favourite foods were apples and peas: a predilection that I naively assumed was the norm for small children. As my son started on solid foods I offered him fruit and vegetables with enthusiastic expectations, only to find he cried when peas appeared on his plate and the concept of eating apple brought on sulking and tantrums.

Perplexed, I persevered – we sowed seeds together, pricked out tomato seedlings, watched apples swell and picked as many colourful crops as we could – yellow ‘Allgold’ raspberries, ‘Purple Haze’ carrots, ‘Pinkberry’ blueberries, deep red ‘Boltardy’ beetroot, striped ‘Green Tiger’ tomatoes and purple-podded ‘Blauwschokker’ peas.

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Vivid colours motivate children to try new foods…

Gradually he started trying a wider range of fruit and vegetables – it’s hard not to get excited about ripening tomatoes when you can remember pushing the seeds into moist compost with your fingers. That was over 5 years ago, and this week my daughter (6) decided she likes our homegrown beetroot and my son (now 9) ate one of our James Grieve apples whole – an unimaginable feat just a year ago. 

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First steps – sowing seeds…

We have all benefited from growing food as a family. Each spring we choose our crops for the next growing season and from that moment, the anticipation begins. This February we made our choices and were soon surrounded by a colourful collection of seed packets from the Fun To Grow range, courtesy of Suttons Seeds. We began with Table Top Tomato, sowing the seeds almost immediately, then started off the delightfully alliterative Crocodile Cucumber, Mini Muncher Peas, spherical Bowling Carrots and the non-edible but nonetheless exciting Dancing Plant and Caterpillar Plant a few weeks later.

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Pleased with the new arrivals

Recycling has been a family priority this year, so we began by making our own seed pots out of old newspaper. It’s a fun job and the kids quickly got the hang of wrapping the paper strips at just the right tension so they would slide off easily once the bottoms had been firmly secured.

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First job: roll the pot sides

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Pressing down the base firmly ensures the compost won’t escape later

Then we filled our pots with compost and read the seed packet instructions – learning about the varying depths, light conditions and germination temperatures that different seeds require. 

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Writing labels

Once the pots were labelled, we counted the days until germination and slowly but surely tiny shoots and seed leaves began to appear. The appearance of new growth, that magical emergence, fills cold spring days with joy for adult gardeners – so what a wonderful experience for young children for whom the world is naturally filled with enchantment. 

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Crocodile cucumber buckets

In late spring we planted the Crocodile Cucumbers into a couple of broken buckets, the Table Top Tomatoes went in the greenhouse with the Caterpillar Plants, and the Mini Muncher Peas and Bowling Carrots began developing in the vegetable beds.

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Table Top Tomatoes were a sweet hit with the kids

We ate peas fresh from the pod throughout June and the tomatoes are still being picked and ripening in the greenhouse. The cucumbers have produced so many fruit that we’ve had enough for tzatziki – another first for the kids, declared ‘delicious’ and requested as a regular dip with pitta and olives. 

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Tasty Mini Muncher Peas are so low growing that they need no staking and are easily accessible for small people

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These ‘Boltardy’ beets were harvested by the kids for Beetroot and Chocolate cupcakes

The Caterpillar Plants have bloomed all summer in the greenhouse – tiny yellow flowers which have turned into the eponymous caterpillars curled back on their stems, providing seeds for sowing next year. The Sensitive Plants didn’t germinate, so no scientific experiments to test whether the foliage responds to our touch this year. But it’s good that the kids experience growing failures as well as successes – one of the realities of working with nature.

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These delicate, furry caterpillars delighted the kids

Growing our own crops has, without doubt, had a positive effect on the way my kids approach what’s on their plates. But learning about how plants grow, how they provide for us and for wildlife, goes deeper than this. Such experiences help to form lifelong relationships with nature and develop an understanding of its fundamental role in our lives – providing us with enjoyment, wonder and the food upon which we rely.

Tulip Time…

I can’t believe it’s already time to decide which bulbs to grow next spring. It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally managed to whittle the current list down to ten – based on the most reliable, perennial and beautiful varieties we’ve grown in the past 15 years…

1. ‘Ballerina’

One of my favourite tulips with its perennial nature, such a feisty colour and the way its shape and hue changes as it matures. Initially almost red, it matures to a bright orange with red stripes down the middle of each petal. It looks stunning on its own, for example as an edging plant in these images taken at Capel Manor gardens…

It thrives in my gravel garden despite clay soil, although I do plant all of my tulips with a handful of gravel beneath each bulb. I combine ‘Ballerina’ with ‘Queen of Night’ in the front gravel garden. In the back flowerbed it blooms alongside ‘Purple Prince’, ‘Queen of Night’ and blue forget-me-nots and never fails to lift my spirits when I see it emerging in the spring.

The versatile ‘Ballerina’ thrives in the back garden, front garden and in pots

2. ‘Swan Wings’

Generally I favour simple shapes and colours with my tulips, but I photographed ‘Swan Wings’ years ago at RHS Wisley and have always wanted to grow it. Maybe this year’s the year…

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3. ‘Queen of Night’

I love deep purple/black flowers and foliage; I use them in my garden and my work as often as I can. I’ve been growing ‘Queen of Night’ for years and find it reliably perennial. It combines well with lighter purple and orange tulips, but also looks stunning with white or off-white bedding plants. It works well combined with wallflower ‘Ivory White’.

4. ‘Mistress Mystic’

Combining style and subtlety, ‘Mistress Mystic’ has a vintage allure and charm all of her own. We grew this in the allotment last year; it lasted well in arrangements and worked beautifully with other soft white, green and pink tulips.

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‘Mistress Mystic’ is one of the most elegant tulips

5. ‘Prinses Irene’

Possibly one of the most beautiful tulips we’ve ever grown, ‘Prinses Irene’ is a subtle, understated winner. They thrived in pots and we’ve also been impressed by  ‘National Velvet’ which we grow alongside and which has a superb colour and sheen.

‘Prinses Irene’ and ‘National Velvet’

6. ‘Purissima’

Another favourite is ‘Purissima’ with its white/cream flowers which open up to dinner-plate size in the sun. It is a reliably perennial tulip and has lasted several years in big pots in the garden.

In pots with wild strawberries at the back and with mixed muscari at the front

7. ‘Shirley’

‘Shirley’ was the only tulip in the first garden I owned, although I didn’t know its name at the time. I loved its soft markings and photographed it in wonder. I think it’s about time I grew it again…

‘Shirley’ in my first ever garden

It looks great in a pot (with ‘Jackpot’) or in borders (with ‘Paul Scherer’ at the back)

8. ‘Purple Prince’

We grew ‘Purple Prince’ a few years ago to create a purple accent against the orange of ‘Ballerina’ and dark purple of ‘Queen of Night’, then decided we preferred the orange and dark purple on their own and marked the ‘Purple Prince’ tulips so we could remove the bulbs after flowering. Two years on they are still appearing en masse in the flowerbed so we’ve decided they can stay, especially when this serendipitous combination appeared as ‘Purple Prince’ emerged in front of the foliage of the Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’. 

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9. ‘Zurel’

When we moved into my current house 6 years ago there was a purple and white rembrandt tulip in a border we had to remove to make room for the apple espaliers. We replaced it the next year with ‘Zurel’ – a striking, upbeat tulip. Unfortunately the bulbs didn’t reappear – probably because we overwintered the pineapple sage (which was sharing the same pot) in the greenhouse and they dried out. The area at the end of the vegetable beds hasn’t looked the same and we definitely need to get our stripes back.

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 10. ‘Slawa’

For maximum impact in the garden and in a vase, ‘Slawa’ doesn’t disappoint. It grew well in the allotment cutting patch and its rich two-toned flowers added a bit of spice to all my spring arrangements.

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More tulip images from my albums which have me reaching for the catalogues…

Which tulips can’t you be without and which new ones have bewitched you? Leave me a comment so I can make my wish list even longer  😉

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Family Fun: The Great British Wildflower Hunt

In 2012, Oxford University Press removed around 50 nature words from the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, replacing them with technological terms such as ‘chatroom’, ‘attachment’ and ‘broadband’. As Robert MacFarlane writes in his extraordinary celebration of the language of landscape and natural life, Landmarks, ‘for blackberry, read BlackBerry‘. These substitutions reflect changing times, with three-quarters of children now spending less time in the natural environment than prison inmates. The OJD word lists are taken from data compiled from children across the country and highlight the way experiences in nature are disappearing from many young lives. Without the vocabulary to describe a bluebell or wren, how can we expect the next generation to recognise, value and conserve the natural world for the future?

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Learning about wildflowers in a Wiltshire meadow, photo credit (c): James King

One way to engage kids with the natural world over the summer holidays is to take part in campaigns such as Plantlife’s Great British Wildflower Hunt. It’s always fun to search for species to tick off – I remember many happy hours with the I-Spy books as a child – and it’s a way for adults and children to work together, sharing experiences and knowledge. When adults communicate their passion for nature to children some of the magic inevitably rubs off. I was reminded of the potency of inspiration last autumn when I asked the question ‘What began your love of gardening?’ Of the 200 or more responses, almost all began with tales of a grandparent, parent or family friend who took the time to share their love for the gardening and natural world.

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Dandelion contemplation, photo credit: Plantlife Kim Newman

Plantlife outlines two compelling reasons why we should spend more time on our hands and knees exploring the world of wildflowers close up. Firstly, wildflowers are beautiful. Yesterday, while walking in a local nature reserve with my dad, we spotted some hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica). It’s a tall but modest plant in the mint family, but on closer inspection the tiny hooded flowers, circling the stem in whorls, have intricate white patterning on the deep red-purple lower lips which reminded me of the elaborate markings on orchid labella.

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Children love to explore nature closely, photo credit: Plantlife Kim Newman

Secondly, Plantlife reminds us of the undeniable, but often overlooked fact that ‘wildflowers are vital to our planet. So much depends on them – bees, butterflies and us.’ As many of us are aware, in the past century we have lost 97% of our wildflower meadows, species-rich grasslands which were 6,000 years in the making. As these habitats disappear, they take with them populations of wildflowers like bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and bee orchids (Ophrys apifera), and native grasses like sheep’s fescue (Festuca ovina) and soft brome (Bromus hordeaceus). 

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Common bird’s-foot trefoil, photo credit: (c) Plantlife Trevor Dines

Getting involved in the Great British Wildflower Hunt is easy. You can choose to search in a town or city, or in the countryside – there are different resources for each location. The Wildflower Hunt materials include activities for families and there are spotter sheets to download. Results can be submitted online and even if you don’t manage to find any wildflowers on your hunt, it doesn’t matter. All data is valuable to build a picture of the state of wildflower populations in the UK.

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Common Knapweed, photo credit: (c) Plantlife Trevor Dines

Last year, from the Channel Islands to the Orkney Islands, more than 15,200 wild flowers were spotted by the British public. 15% of participants started out saying they couldn’t name any wildflowers and were ‘unsure’ of their identification abilities, but they completed the hunt which was a fantastic achievement.  At the other end of the scale, thirteen hunters scored a full house, finding all the species on their spotter sheets and scoring the maximum 37 points.

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Celandines in Camarthan, photo credit: (c) Trevor Dines

So do something special this summer and take a walk on the wildflower side. I’m looking forward to getting out and about, exploring new sites on our holidays and adding our records to Plantlife’s database. Hopefully our sightings will be a small step along the route to conserving our native flora and I’m sure we’ll have a lot of fun along the way.

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Fun in the bluebells woods, photo credit: Plantlife Kim Newman

Featured image photo credit: Nicola Acketts

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BBC Gardeners World Live – All About Inspiration

Visitors to BBC Gardeners World Live have a busy, exciting show ahead of them this year. With 10 show gardens, 6 smaller gardens, more than 20 beautiful borders and over 100 stands selling plants and gardening equipment, the show will provide inspirational ideas for everyone to take home.

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Inspiration is everywhere at this year’s show

Made in Birmingham

As soon as you step into the show garden area the Pullman Carriage and working steam engine draws you into the beautiful Made in Birmingham garden. Not only is the train a spectacular centrepiece, but the surrounding gardens are bursting with colourful vegetables and flowers grown by volunteers from the MIND group in Knowle, supported by Flowers from the Farm.

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Outside the Pullman Carriage I found an impressive vantage point over the whole show

I’m always in awe of giant brassicas and each one of the gargantuan specimens in the allotment section would feed a family for a month! The carriage was made in Birmingham (hence the name of the design) and the garden represents the city’s contribution to agriculture and horticulture throughout the Black Country. After visiting the garden and travelling through the train, it was no surprise to me at the Awards Ceremony when it won Platinum and Best in Show.

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Giant brassicas as seen from the train window

Young Landscapers’ Award

Taking inspiration from an initial design by Diarmuid Gavin, four top young landscapers have paired up to create The Round Garden (The Plants and Paving Company) and The Square Garden (Bespoke Outdoor Spaces) in this brand new competition supported by the Association of Professional Landscapers.

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The Round Garden

Dairmuid discussed the award, emphasising the need to encourage young people into horticultural and landscaping careers, and he also highlighted the lack of female landscapers in the competition – expressing a hope that this will change in future years as the industry becomes seen as more accessible for women. This year, Jacob Botting and Laurence Senior are deserving winners for their elegant square garden with its elegant birches, gentle planting and immaculate slate walls.

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The Square Garden

Beautiful Borders

It is encouraging that many of the borders focus on wildlife-friendly planting, particular on providing food for our pollinating insects. Bee Inspired designed by Aldethea Raymond and Tiernach McDermott for Candide, the country’s newest gardening community, which aim to connect plant-lovers across the country through their gardening app. Their border displays bee-friendly perennials and the best photo of the show uploaded to Candide’s app wins the full border display.

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I love the salvias, heucheras and fairy bug hotel in the Bee Inspired border

 

The Useful and Beautiful border designed by Alexa Ryan-Mills includes more unusual cultivars like Sambucus ‘Chocolate Marzipan’, Linaria ‘Tarte au Citron’ and Achillea ‘Prospero’ to entice pollinators and Alexa told me she has chosen flower types and shapes to accommodate different insects. There are even gooseberries in the border to encourage pollinators – in this case, wasps!

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Alexa’s border shows how planting can be both beautiful and useful

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This beautiful native fox and cubs or orange hawkbit is radiant in the border: their petals reflect ultraviolet light, making them more conspicuous to pollinators

APL Avenue

My favourite garden on the avenue, which was awarded a Gold, is Living Gardens ‘Inspiration in the Raw’ Garden designed by Peter Cowell. This is a deeply tactile garden that draws you in to touch, smell and experience the raw recycled materials and plant up close.

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I felt at home in the ‘Inspiration in the Raw’ garden

DSC_0060 (2).JPGAs I walked through the space I was impressed by the way Peter has divided the garden into rooms for entertaining, cooking, relaxing, with secret areas for children, without losing the unity of the design: each space is subtly different but linked through the use of wood, brick and delicate meadow planting.

I felt grounded in this garden, so I’ll be taking the raw sense of this design back home and experimenting with recycled materials and meadow planting in my own garden in the future. 

What I would give for a heuchera wall like this in my garden – maybe next year!

 

 

 

 

Health, Wellbeing and Sustainability at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Chris Beardshaw recently said that he felt Chelsea show gardens should only be accepted if they were going to be relocated afterwards. It seems that other designers may be following his lead as this year’s show sees more of the gardens and planting being relocated than ever before. The recipients of the gardens are diverse; ranging from a refugee camp, a higher education college, the grounds of the Epilepsy Society, a community garden in Westminister and the grounds of the Hospice of St Francis in Berkhamsted.

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The Myeloma UK Garden will be relocated to the Hospice of St Francis

An average of 3010 plants are used in each show garden and many of these are borrowed then returned after the show; in fact some of the plants are Chelsea veterans, reappearing in different gardens year after year. The Weston Garden embraces the philosophy of reusing materials – many of the plants have been borrowed for the duration of the show from Crocus and the rest will be reused afterwards. Plants from The Morgan Stanley Garden for the NSPCC, designed by Chris Beardshaw, will be donated to the NSPCC who are organising plant sales in Barnet, North London and Maidstone, Kent. Across the whole show plants will be collected and redistributed to local schools and community gardens across East London and beyond as part of a reuse scheme set up by the landscape, architecture and art collective Wayward.

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The Urban Flow Garden plants will be donated by Thames Water to ‘Roots and Shoots’ – an environmentally-focused educational charity based in Kennington providing vocational training for young people from the inner city

The RHS Feel Good Garden is another design which is intended for a new life after the show. It will be relocated to the Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust which provides care and treatment to vulnerable adults in a build up area of London where green space is limited. Matt Keightley, the designer and twice-winner of the RHS/BBC People’s Choice Award, visited the NHS site in April. He said ‘I am delighted that the RHS Feel Good Garden will live on, providing a calm and beautiful space for adults in need of respite.’

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The RHS Feel Good Garden, destined for an NHS Trust site after the show

Matt is also creating a health and wellbeing garden at RHS Wisley, due to open in 2020, and the RHS Feel Good Garden is inspired by his Wisley design. With an increasing evidence base demonstrating the positive effect that gardens and gardening can have on mental health, the joint venture between the RHS and NHS to gift the garden to a mental health trust site signals the growing awareness of these benefits across the healthcare profession.

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The RHS Feel Good Garden creates a relaxing atmosphere which draws the visitor into the space

Sitting in the garden you are surrounded by soft planting in lemon, green and blue with bursts of deep reds and purples. It’s a relaxing space which also entices you to reach out and engage with your environment.

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Relaxing blue, lemon and green planting including nepeta racemosa ‘Walker’s Low’, Iris ‘Silver Edge’ and Salvia nemorosa ‘Amethyst’

The mellow sandy and chocolate coloured paving is laid transversely to give a sense of width to the space, encouraging the visitor to slow down and enjoy the journey through the garden. I like the way the planting falls across the pathway and Matt has chosen many aromatic plants like thyme, rosemary, mint and sage to create scent as you move around the garden.

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Mellow paving to match the planting

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Beneath the seats and stonework nestle aromatic herbs and tiny campanula flowers

Grasses such as Deschampsia cespitosa, Briza media,  Melica nutans and Stipa tenuissima, alongside naturalistic perennials like Pimpinella major ‘Rosea’, Astrantia ‘Moulin Rouge’, Achillea ‘Moonshine’, Cirsium rivulare and Dianthus cruentus create an airy filter through which the more textural plants like the ferns can be seen. The light planting also softens the cantilevered stone terraces which appear to float above the plants, grounding the visitor in the sanctuary of the garden.

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The layers of planting build up texture in the garden

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The shade loving epimedium, ferns and acorus create a sense of intimacy in these stone cavities

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Soft curves and airy planting stops the stonework becoming too heavy

The mushroom seats create more floating structures within the planting. Herbs predominate in this area so that visitors have to step on the mint and rosemary to access the stools and the scent emanating from beneath your feet commits the mind entirely to the present moment.

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These organic shaped seats give the visitor licence to immerse themselves in the garden

I sat in the garden for a while, contemplating the way it made me feel. I had a sense of being grounded in the moment; I was relaxed yet at the same time completely engaged with my environment. If the garden can foster the same feelings of happiness in the patients, staff and families at the Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust that I felt yesterday, it will be an extremely worthwhile addition to the site and will hopefully encourage more dialogue and practical projects based on the important relationship between gardens, gardening and mental health.

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Striking contrast of the soft Digitalis lutea and Trollius ‘Alabaster’ with the dark, silky Iris ‘Black Swan’

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The RHS Feel Good Garden – inspiring on so many levels

‘When you are sad a garden comforts. When you are humiliated or defeated a garden consoles. When you are consumed by anxiety it will soother you and when the world is a dark  and bleak place it shines a light to guide you on.’ Monty Don

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Winter Treats: Redwing and Fieldfare

Yesterday there was a frantic scramble at the breakfast table – there was a fieldfare in the birch tree – the first we’d ever seen in our garden. Later, as I drove down Bedfordshire lanes on the way to visit a friend, I saw fieldfare in the hedgerows and when I arrived there were redwings and fieldfare in her garden – again the first they’d ever seen. In the last few days thousands of fieldfare and redwings have arrived from Northern Europe and have been visiting gardens in search of food and shelter. There have been so many that the RSPB organised an impromptu redwing and fieldfare count today and reports of large flocks have been sent in from all over the country.

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Fieldfare in the snow (image: Alan Garner)

It’s a rare treat to see these birds so close to home, but they are visiting gardens because of the harsh weather and they act as a reminder that all garden birds need our help in the cold weather. The RSPB recommend:

  • providing fatty food, making fat balls and homemade bird cakes, and putting out kitchen scraps such as mild grated cheese, porridge oats and soaked, chopped currants, although be aware that currants are poisonous to dogs
  • providing water – with a ping pong ball in the bowl to stop it freezing or putting out juicy fruit like apples and pears
  • providing shelter – nest boxes work well and will be used by garden birds like long-tailed tits for roosting
  • offering winter shelter such as in evergreen climbers, dense hedges like privet and hawthorn, and evergreen shrubs and trees
  • even if you don’t have bird boxes or evergreen shelter, the RSPB advises propping a bucket up sideways or grouping plants in containers together to provide some shelter from the wind

Considering the fact that around one quarter of a typical UK city comprises private gardens and that the total area of UK gardens is roughly equivalent to an area one fifth the size of Wales, the potential for gardeners to make a real difference to the fate of our garden birds is clear. Our birds need a little help from us and in return we get to watch one of nature’s most beautiful sights from the comfort of our own homes.

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Another occasional winter visitor to our garden (image: Alan Garner)

What birds has the Beast from the East brought to your garden this week? Do you have any tips for ways to help our garden birds through this cold spell? Please leave your comments below. Thank you  🙂

More information on feeding garden birds is available from the RSPB website.

3 Top Tasting Tomatoes…

If you only grew 3 tomatoes this year – which cultivars would you choose?

I’ve never had this dilemma before as the greenhouse is usually a jungle of tomato foliage by June and I always defend my excessive tomato habit by claiming that growing for the school fete necessitates producing several extra trays of tomatoes – as indeed it does. But this year, having passed the responsibility of the stall onto fresh hands, I might have to acknowledge the other reasons for the tomato chaos, which include:

  1. An inability to compost unwanted seedlings
  2. An endless desire to try out new cultivars
  3. Too much focus on sowing: not enough on growing

So this year, with no pressure to grow for others, I’m going to raise fewer plants and make more time and space to care for them better. I’ve decided to choose only my 3 favourites – the ones with the best flavour – along with 4 new cultivars. I’m just intending to grow one of each type (please hold me to this) and thus I’ll be reducing my normal tomato numbers by three quarters.

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Beautiful summery colours

Reading back through my records to decide on the 3 ‘keepers’, I’ve come across a few which just don’t quite make the grade:

  • ‘Millefleur’ – a centiflor variety with hundreds of small yellow fruits, but a little disappointing on taste
  • ‘Indigo Rose’ – a deep black cherry tomato with beautiful red skin under the calyx and a sweet, meaty taste, but doesn’t quite make the top three
  • ‘Black Russian’ and ‘Black Krim’ – lovely mellow beefsteak tomatoes, great for salads, but not quite enough yield to make the grade
  • ‘Gartenperle’ – my favourite hanging basket tomato with a sweet taste and excellent yield – would be my number 4

Other good tasting tomatoes have included ‘Tumbling Tom’ – red and yellow, ‘Tigarella’, ‘Sungold’, ‘Black Opal’ and ‘Heinz 1370’, but my self-restrained top 3 would have be:

  • ‘Green Zebra’ – my children’s favourite with vibrant green stripes and a fresh tangy flavour which adds a real zing to summer salads
  • ‘Gardener’s Delight’ – an unsurprising favourite for its reliability, thin skins and sweet taste
  • Golden Sunrise – a deliciously sweet yellow tomato and my top tasting cultivar

Tomatoes form the basis of so many summer meals

Alongside these I’m trying:

  • ‘Rosella’ – a smoky rose-pink cherry tomato with high anti-oxidant levels and very few seeds
  • ‘Red Zebra’ – high levels of lycopene, excellent flavour and I can’t resist the stripes
  • ‘Sweet ‘n’ Neat Red’ – a sweet container tomato for the kids to grow, reaching only 30cm

And I’d like to add another tomato based on flavour recommendation, so please leave me a comment about your top tasting tomato. I’ll choose one from your delicious favourites and sow all my tomato seeds in the next few weeks. Then hopefully, come June, the greenhouse will be home to seven healthy, heavily-cropping tomato plants, with plenty of room left over for my chillies, cucumbers, marigolds and cucamelons.

Happy sowing and growing! If you’d like to follow the progress of my tomato crop in 2018, do keep in touch via social media and subscribe to the blog below…

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Thanks for all the recommendations. Here are your top tasting tomatoes, shared yesterday and today on the blog and social media:

Purple Ukraine, Japanese Black Trifele, Tigerella, Sungold, Gardeners’ Delight, Dona, Sweet Millions, Super Sweet 100, Black Russian, Tornado, Rapunzel, Bumble Bee, Black Prince, Ship Saint, Black Krim, Pineapple, Green Zebra, Rosada, Chocolate Cherokee, Maskotka, Roma, San Marzano, Rose de Berne, Tumbling Tom

What a glorious selection of assorted colours, shapes and flavours! I’ve chosen Rose de Berne to try this year. What a great excuse to order some seeds from Real Seeds and it’s just possible that some quinoa and tomato ‘Purple Ukraine’ may have snuck into the basket when I wasn’t looking… 😉